If it wasn’t clear by the setup—50 state flags on the White House’s South Lawn, an 800-person cheering section, the dais loaded with senior congressional leadership, Republican allies, labor bosses, and his own vice president—President Joe Biden had a straightforward message at the signing ceremony for his $1 trillion infrastructure bill: It’s a big fucking deal.
“My message to the American people is this: America’s moving again! And your life is going to change for the better!” an animated Biden told a crowd of nearly a thousand people gathered in the crisp autumn sun, some of whom chanting “JOE! JOE! JOE!” moments before he signed the legislation into law on Monday afternoon. “This law is a blue-collar blueprint to rebuild America—it leaves nobody behind.”
“Things are gonna turn around in a big way!” Biden said.
His remarks advocated not only for the revitalization of America’s roadways and railways but for its bipartisan spirit—which, given the makeup of Congress, may be an even taller order than the biggest infrastructure package in half a century.
“Let’s remember this day—let’s remember we can come together!” Biden said. “And most of all, let’s remember what we’ve gotten done for the American people when we truly do come together.”
But as he celebrated a victory for his longstanding faith in the power of consensus, it was clear by every indicator but the ceremony’s staging that Biden’s ability to convince Americans that more big fucking deals are on the way is far from guaranteed.
Most Republicans involved in the bill’s passage, many of whom have been besieged with death threats, skipped the ceremony. Most Americans, the majority of whom told pollsters they support the bill, say that Biden has accomplished “not very much” or “little or nothing” in his first ten months in office. And an increasing number of Biden’s supporters, both within and outside the administration, told The Daily Beast that his ability to sell the package is far from a guarantee.
“There is, at least right now, a moderate amount of concern about whether people will actually care,” one longtime Biden ally told The Daily Beast. “Republicans are wickedly adept at convincing voters that imaginary things, ‘critical race theory’ and whatever-the-hell, are going to materially affect them and their families.”
The material benefits of the legislation—replacing every lead pipe in America, expanding broadband internet access to rural America, blanketing the nation with electric vehicle charging stations, the biggest investment in public transit in history—are straightforward, and wildly popular.
“Actual improvements to real infrastructure shouldn’t be this hard to sell,” the Biden ally said, “but with COVID and supply-chain issues and just the insane headwinds he’s faced the past few months, it’s going to be a slog.”
Biden has already begun implementing the “sell” phase of the bipartisan infrastructure bill, which is officially known as the Infrastructure and Investment Jobs Act but is perhaps better known as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework (BIF). Minutes before the signing, Biden released an executive order calling the bill “a once-in-a-generation investment in our nation’s infrastructure and competitiveness,” creating a task force to implement the legislation.
This week, he’ll visit a New Hampshire bridge that has been in need of replacement for nearly a decade, followed by an electric-vehicle factory in Detroit, both of which will benefit from components of the legislation.
But the rest of Biden’s domestic agenda—a massive $1.8 trillion social spending package that encompasses issues ranging from universal preschool and renewable energy investment to Medicare expansion and immigration system reform—is still ensnared in an intra-party slugfest led by one of the featured speakers at Monday’s ceremony.
Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who boasted in her remarks that the bill’s passage proved wrong the increasing public consensus that sweeping legislation was “no longer possible in today’s Senate,” was given a prime spot in Monday’s programming as a gesture of goodwill, one source familiar with the event’s planning said. But there’s still enough frustration with Sinema’s refusal to back the reconciliation package that her choice of attire—a thin cardigan on a windy, 45-degree afternoon—gave some White House staffers a tiny bit of satisfaction.
But while the president remains “frustrated by the negativity and the infighting,” as White House press secretary Jen Psaki put it ahead of the event, the ongoing stalemate over popular legislation that can’t earn a single Republican vote was no reason not to “celebrate a bipartisan success.”
“Whether people come or not,” Psaki said, “that’s their choice.”
Every speaker at the event emphasized the “historic” nature of the legislation, both in terms of its increasingly rare bipartisan passage and in terms of the years-long struggle to pass meaningful infrastructure legislation. Vice President Kamala Harris framed the package as a successor to the completion of the Hoover Dam and the creation of the interstate highway system.
“Indeed, it is an historic day today,” Harris said.
But even Harris made clear the stakes of the reconciliation package’s passage, calling the infrastructure bill “part one of two.”
“The work of building a more perfect union did not end with the railroad or the interstate,” Harris said, “and it won’t end now.”